Teams change as players leave through the draft or or can’t play for whatever reason, but schemes and concepts may remain the same. Here, Mark Schofield looks at the Mississippi State Bulldogs screen game on offense.
Last season, the Mississippi State Bulldogs were a bit of a surprise. Despite only returning seven starters, fewest in the Southeastern Conference, Dan Mullen’s team finished the regular season 8-5 and ended its campaign with a blowout victory against North Carolina State in the Belk Bowl. Since then, though, a number of critical players have left Starkville, chief among them quarterback Dak Prescott, who has slid into the starting role with the Dallas Cowboys. But while the Bulldogs look to break in a new starting quarterback, they also return two key skill position players: Senior running back Brandon Holloway and senior wide receiver Fred Ross. Performance from these players, particularly in how the MSU offense uses them in the screen game, will make life a lot easier for sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald.
Brandon Holloway and the RB Screen Game
Holloway is one of the more versatile offensive weapons in the SEC. In 2016 he carried the ball 92 times for 428 yards, an average of 4.5 yards per attempt. He also caught 33 passes for 396 yards and five touchdowns, good for 12.0 yards per reception, including a team-long 63-yard reception on the year.
Listed at 5’8” 165 pounds, do not expect to see a lot of Holloway between the tackles. Mullen likes to attack the edges with his running back, and really likes to get Holloway the football in space in the screen game.
This first example, from Mississippi State’s game against Arkansas, finds the Bulldogs facing a 2nd and 5 on their own 31-yard line. They line up with Prescott (#15) in the shotgun and with 11 personnel on the field, with trips to the right and the tight end in a wing alignment. Holloway (#10) starts the play in the backfield, but he exits toward the right side of the field on tear motion. He starts the play standing to the left of Prescott, but exits the backfield to the opposite side. The Razorbacks have their 4-2-5 nickel defense on the field.
Prescott takes the snap and simply flips the football outside to Holloway on a quick swing screen:
It might seem like Arkansas has a numbers advantage on this side of the field, but crucial points of execution allow this play to succeed. First, the timing of the snap works to prevent the linebackers from sliding with the motion man; the ball is snapped just as the strong-side linebacker starts to move, giving Holloway a head start:
Second, Prescott places the throw well, leading his running back to the sideline and up the field. This gets him behind the two wide receivers, and they form a nice wall for him to run behind.
Putting this together, Holloway pulls in the easy throw and picks up a very quick 10 yards for the Bulldogs:
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This other example, also from the game against Arkansas, finds Holloway running a screen play again toward trips. This time, the running back begins in the backfield. Facing 3rd and 4 early in the game, the Bulldogs line up with 10 offensive personnel using trips to the left and a single receiver split to the right. Holloway stands to the left of Prescott, shaded toward the trips side of the field. Arkansas shows Cover 4 in the secondary with its 4-2-5 nickel defense:
Mississippi State runs a simple swing screen to Holloway, behind the trips receivers:
Again, Prescott leads the receiver toward the line of scrimmage, giving him a running head start on the play. The three blockers are in good position to pick up the three most dangerous defenders: The playside cornerback, the slot cornerback, and the SLB. Because of Holloway’s speed, the weakside linebacker is not a factor. If the blocking is right, the only player who can stop this play is the safety:
Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, safety Rohan Gaines (#26) takes a poor angle, and Holloway blows right by him en route to the touchdown:
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As both of these plays demonstrate, Holloway is a tremendously quick athlete out of the backfield, and his speed gives him an advantage on these designs against most linebackers and safeties. Having a security blanket in the form of Holloway will give Fitzgerald some easy throws, while getting the football in the hands of a talented playmaker in space.
Fred Ross and the WR Screen Package
Not to be outdone, Ross presents another true weapon for Mullen and the Mississippi State offense. Last season the wide receiver hauled in a team high 88 passes for 1,007 yards and five touchdowns, becoming only the second receiver in school history to surpass 1,000 receiving yards in a season. While he can be effective in the intermediate and deeper levels of the field, his ability to run with the football makes him another dangerous weapon in the screen game.
On this play against Texas A&M, Mississippi State sets up its quick bubble screen to trips, only this time Ross (#8) is the intended target. The Bulldogs line up with 11 personnel on the field, with the trio of receivers on the left side of the field. The offense stacks the two inside receivers, with Ross standing right behind fellow WR De’Runnya Wilson (#1):
This is a very creative use of formation for two reasons. First, teams typically stack receivers to generate a free release for the receiver set behind the line of scrimmage, allowing them to get into a pass pattern quickly without being impeded by a jam from a defensive back. By lining up like this, the Bulldogs signal to the Aggies that a vertical passing play might be coming, when in reality they are throwing the screen:
The second reason that the stack alignment is creative is that it gives Wilson an advantageous angle on his initial block. As you can see from the pre-snap photo, the nickel cornerback takes a bit of an inside alignment on this play, trying to take away any quick slant route from either of the stacked receivers. So when Prescott swings the ball to Ross on the outside, Wilson finds himself right between the receiver and the slot DB:
Again, a well-placed throw from Prescott allows Ross to turn upfield quickly:
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The receiver cuts behind Wilson, and gets into the red zone on a gain of nearly 20 yards.
Finally, Mississippi State is not afraid to run the WR quick screen out of their Queen, or quad alignment. Against Arkansas, the Bulldogs line up for a 1st and 10 play on the Razorbacks’ 14-yard line. Using 11 personnel, they put four receivers to the right, with Ross stacking behind tight end Gus Walley (#19)
As you can probably guess, the screen to Ross is the order off the callsheet menu:
This still shows you how the offense gets exactly what it wants from the start of this play:
All three blocks are coming together in front of the ball-carrier. The safety is rotating over, but he is 10-yards downfield, and Ross is picking up steam. To the inside, the linebacker is already trailing the play and has a poor angle of pursuit. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, defensive back Henre’ Toliver (#5) works off his block and makes the tackle:
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Ross still picks up 6 yards on the play, giving the Bulldogs a manageable 2nd and 4 inside the Arkansas 10-yard line. But the play began exactly the way Mississippi State wanted, setting up Ross to have a one-on-one situation with the safety 10-yards downfield and near the goal line.
Stripping away the results of these plays, you can see how the dual weapons in Ross and Holloway will make life easier for MSU’s new quarterback. These screen designs will give Fitzgerald some easy throws to make in the passing game, while getting Ross and Holloway the football in space and with a convoy of blockers. Considered by many to be a long shot in the SEC this season, perhaps the quick screen game, and the weapons they have in Ross and Holloway, are the best chance for the Bulldogs to surprise anew in 2016.
Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter. Buy his book, 17 Drives. Check out his other work here, such as how Alabama passes to attack the flat, or Tennessee’s use of the double post concept, or how LSU runs play action.
All film courtesy of DraftBreakdown.
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